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California Cannabis Lab Director Caught Faking Pesticide Tests

December 4, 2018
Cannabis samples await testing in a California lab. "Phase 3" testing for heavy metals commenced Jan. 1. (David Downs | Leafly)A lab director in Sacramento admitted to falsifying pesticide test results. Above, cannabis samples for testing. (David Downs/Leafly)
As the California cannabis industry prepared for a rigorous, state-mandated testing regime that took effect on July 1, the laboratory director at Sequoia Analytical Labs in Sacramento allegedly went rogue.

According to officials with Sequoia and California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), Sequoia’s lab director—unbeknownst to anyone else at the company—began falsifying reports for hundreds of batches of cannabis that went out to retailers. He said the batches passed tests for 22 pesticides, even though the tests allegedly were not done.

“You always have to ask yourself—who is watching the watchers?”
Jeffrey Raber, CEO, The Werc Shop

The fraud continued and wasn’t detected until Nov. 27, when the Bureau of Cannabis Control, made suspicious by the odd format of submitted test reports, mounted a surprise inspection of Sequoia. The lab director, Marc Foster, immediately owned up: “He flat-out told them, ‘I faked it,’” according to Steven Dutra, Sequoia’s general manager.

Dutra fired Foster the next day. Dutra said he has no idea why Foster faked the reports. The testing equipment wasn’t working, and Foster told the company, “I just kept thinking I was going to figure it out the next day,” according to Dutra.

Foster did not respond to Leafly’s attempts to reach him for comment, nor has he made any public statements about it on his social media accounts. An official at the BCC declined to elaborate on the situation: “The Bureau has no further comment on Sequoia at this time.”

The company, on its own volition, immediately surrendered its state cannabis testing license. The BCC has put the lab out of commission for at least the remainder of 2018. According to Dutra, a decision from the BCC is expected soon on the lab’s annual 2019 license, and the company feels it’s likely to be approved despite this major incident.

Millions of Dollars of Cannabis Affected

But even if that happens, Sequoia will likely take a hit. The fraud affected about 700 batches of cannabis—potentially worth millions of dollars. The BCC seized about half of those from the lab. The rest had already gone out to retailers, and much of it probably has already been sold to end consumers. No recall has been imposed, and it’s not even certain one would do much good at this point, since, once it’s tested, cannabis moves through the system fairly quickly. The BCC declined to comment. A call to a number listed for Foster was not returned.

That the lab results were faked doesn’t mean that the affected flower and concentrates exceeded the allowed amounts of pesticides—in fact, they almost certainly didn’t, since only about three percent of tested product exceeds those limits. But the fraud will not help Sequoia’s reputation—which until now has been unblemished.


Legalization Is Stopping Dirty Cannabis From Hitting California Shelves

Reactions have varied among the “30 or 40” affected cannabis distribution companies that rely on lab tests from Sequoia, Dutra said. “They ranged from supportive to speechless—name the emotion, and we’ve heard it,” he said. ‘I’m sure there will be fallout.”

Looking For Legal Cannabis? Leafly Has All Your Local Menus

Will the Lab Regain Its License?

Sequoia has two major things going for it: its longstanding reputation for quality and honesty, and the way it’s handled the crisis so far.

The company served the medical cannabis market for seven years before adult use was legalized. “They have a great reputation,” said Jeffrey Raber, CEO of The Werc Shop, which once performed tests for medical cannabis companies but now functions largely as a consultant to the testing industry.

Dutra said the BCC gave the company the option of notifying its suppliers, and it did so immediately. It also posted a notice on its Instagram page—a highly visible cannabis marketing channel. “We want to be as transparent about this as possible,” Dutra said.

In the meantime, the company is trying to determine what went wrong with its testing equipment. A software glitch might be the culprit, but the whole system is being examined—including the equipment that tests for mold and residual butane, as well as for THC levels. No problems have been reported involving that equipment.

New Lab Director Takes Over

Sequoia was lucky in a way. The company had just hired a new assistant lab director with stellar credentials. She was ready to take over Foster’s job immediately, and is heading up the investigation into the problem.


Legalization Inundates California’s Cannabis Labs

While the fraud itself is solely Foster’s responsibility, the company does acknowledge that it could have done better. The main organizational problem was that Foster was the only chemist in the lab who worked with the pesticide-testing equipment, and the only one who prepared reports. “Nobody was checking his work,” Dutra said, acknowledging that this was a major systemic flaw—like having the chief accountant be the only person in charge of disbursements.  “We were penny wise and pound foolish,” he said.

Raber made the same point. “You always have to ask yourself, ‘who’s watching the watchers?’” he said.

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Dan Mitchell

Dan Mitchell has written for The New York Times, Fortune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Wired, and other publications. He is based in Oakland, California.

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  • marc foster

    I was the lab director at Sequoia Labs from June 2017 until November of 2018. The media reports that I read about “Faking tests” and “secretly falsifying reports” seems misleading. We didn’t make stuff up, we just didn’t test in full compliance with state regulations. I feel bad about it and I know I did something wrong but I don’t think it is fair to call it ‘falsifying reports’.

    When started issuing state reports in June of 2018 we had been closed for the majority of the year for building code and environmental violations. I know we really needed the money to start back up again but I told Steven Dutra that it was absolutely impossible that we could suddenly start testing for the full pesticide list. He told me that he didn’t care what happened but the company had already taken a lot of money and those reports were going out one way or another. I was an hourly worker supporting a family of 8 and as much as I hated it I marked samples as finished even without testing samples in full compliance of state regulations.

    I was horrified to learn later that the company had been secretly falsifying the reports sent to the state by forging my signature to every report sent out. This was done without my knowledge or permission.

    The only time I stuck up for myself was when Steven Dutra asked me what we could do to make potency results higher with the equipment. After I told him we couldn’t do it he told me that he instructed the sampler staff to selectively pick higher potency starting material to bump up the results.

    Reports commonly discuss a piece of faulty equipment at Sequoia. There was a piece that was down for a short period of time that should have been used for testing the 2 samples that the BCC had been checking on. The equipment was used for testing pesticides for most of the time in question and was only down for a short time.

    Marc Foster
    13 January 2019

    • Marc,

      Clearly, what you did was a noble gesture but you’re stupid for getting caught and it was a dumb decision to begin with since you had nothing to gain by doing what you did. Is there more to this story? I don’t understand why an hourly employee would take such risks. If a critical machine is malfunctioning, your job as a non-owner employee is to simply report it to the owner along with any other useful information you’re capable of providing like maybe time and cost estimates for potential solutions, etc.

      You were the only qualified lab technician there so your employment wasn’t at risk. You should have simply delivered the bad news to the owner and waited for his direction. The owner’s a big boy and is not unaware of the risks of this industry and this business. People who are not prepared financially or mentally for the ups and downs don’t get in the business to begin with and I think you know this.

      Faulty equipment happens dude, why risk the entire business without thinking things through first? What information are we missing? Now’s probably a good time to come clean because I don’t think many people believe that an hourly employee would make the decisions you made. It just doesn’t add up.

    • Larry Why

      Your story sounds credible except the part where you state secretly falsifying reports were misleading – but then you’re own words ‘I was horrified to learn later that the company had been secretly falsifying the reports’… huh? You sound conflicted as to whether it was falsifying and by who. Were you getting paid per ‘completed report’?

      My take on your version is your boss was demanding too much considering the overall situation. He fired you and used the ‘machine down’ excuse to try and save his license. You don’t need to cover his lyingass anymore, he made you the scapegoat.

      However the conflicting statements by you do cast legitimate doubt as to your version of events.